Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
How do the top five teams in the Eastern Conference rank, right now?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: 1. Miami, 2. Indiana, 3. Chicago, 4. Brooklyn, 5. New York. I do think the Pacers, the Bulls and even the Nets all might finish closer to the Heat than the Knicks did in 2012-13 – a 12-game gap in the standings – so yes, it will be a closer race. My Nos. 2-4 will be better through maturation (Indiana), returns (Chicago) or additions (Brooklyn), and all of them will beat up on the bottom seven or eight teams in the conference, further padding their records. But the two-time defending champs still have the best player in the league (by a wide margin), uber-confidence and that winning formula. Miami’s challengers would be wise not to over-exert for the No. 1 seed, saving their powder for springtime.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Heat obviously remain the cream of the crop although they did not address their size issue (pending Greg Oden‘s decision) and they let go of Mike Miller. Sorry Brooklyn, but I’m putting Indiana No. 2. They nearly knocked off Miami in the East finals and every one of their guys (plus coach Frank Vogel) should come back better. Danny Granger is on the comeback trail and I like how Larry Bird beefed up the bench. Again, apologies to the Nets, but I’m going with Derrick Rose and the Bulls next. You know they’re going to bring monster defensive effort every night and with Rose back, the Bulls will actually score, too. OK, Nets, you guys are next. This is quite a collection of talent and they should win 50 games just by showing up. Health and rookie coach Jason Kidd are the wild cards here. Kidd has a lot of veteran egos to massage and a lot to prove under pressure. The Knicks bring up the rear among the top challengers. I’m not as down on the Andrea Bargnani trade as others, but I’m also not sure how much better they can be.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Heat, Bulls, Nets, Pacers, Knicks. The distance between 1 and 2 has closed because the closest challenger will get a lot better, probably. If Derrick Rose returns and is able to play at a high level, along with adding Mike Dunleavy via free agency, Chicago will take a step forward. It’s just after the waiting game with Rose last season, no one can say with any certainty when that return will happen.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: 1. Miami 2. Indiana 3. Brooklyn 4. Chicago 5. New York. And yes, things should be tighter between the Heat and Pacers , because Miami lost a weapon (Mike Miller), while Indiana gained a more potent bench with the additions of (the returning) Danny Granger, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. Furthermore, both Brooklyn (with all their weapons) and Chicago (with their defense and toughness) will be serious threats to the champs if they stay healthy enough. Can the season start now?
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The order hasn’t changed at all at the very top. Miami remains the true beast of the Eastern Conference and the league. Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York round out the top five for me … today. The Nets and Knicks could flip flop spots a dozen times between now and the start of training camp on my list. I have lingering questions about both outfits and how they will play with new faces in critical positions. I do not think the gap between the Heat and Pacers has tightened dramatically. It was already paper thin, based on what we saw in the Eastern Conference finals last season. The Pacers are the one legitimate challenger to the Heat, and by legitimate I mean not a theoretical challenger but one we’ve seen push the Heat to the limit in real time.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: 1. Miami 2. Indiana 3. Chicago 4. Brooklyn 5. New York. I really like what Indy’s done this offseason in terms of adding to their bench, and adding a healthy Granger to the mix should be a huge boost. But will it jump them past Miami? I’m not sure how much closer they can get than they already were — after all, they pushed them to seven games in the Conference Finals just a few months back. Either way, I think the Heat are still the class of the East. It’s just that now they know for certain the Pacers are breathing down their necks.